Orville Duane Howe was born September 1, 1831, in Painesville, Ohio. His parents were noted Abolitionists Eber D. and Sophia Hull Howe. The Howe family had relocated from Buffalo to Cleveland in 1819, and from Cleveland to Painesville in 1822. Eber Howe, Orville’s father, started both the “Cleveland Herald” and “Painesville Telegraph” as anti-slavery newspapers. The Howe’s home functioned as a station on the Underground Railroad; in 1835 the family relocated to Concord, Ohio, where they operated a woolen mill that employed fugitive slaves until they could be taken to Canada, across Lake Erie.
The Howe family lived in New England since at least 1640, and had been a part of American history from colonial times. Howes were part of the founding of Salem and the Witch Trials. Howe men fought in the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, and the War of 1812. Eber fought alongside his father, Samuel, Orville’s grandfather, in the War of 1812. Orville’s mother Sophia came from the Hull family of Buffalo, New York, another colonial-era family. Sophia’s father and grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War and War of 1812. The Hull house was one of the few structures that survived the burning of Buffalo during the War of 1812. The Hulls, like the Howes, were Abolitionists, and the Hull house, which is still standing, served as a station in the Underground Railroad. In addition, Sophia Hull Howe was active in the movement for Greek independence and the dawning women’s movement.
It was into this progressive and privileged family that Orville was born. The exact order of his birth is unknown. Eber and Sophia had six children, only three of whom survived childhood. Orville, his older brother Edmund, and sister, Minerva lived into early adulthood, but sadly, Orville’s older brother, Edmund, died when he was nineteen, in 1849. Little is known about Orville’s childhood. He no doubt helped his family in the woolen mill and in Abolitionist activities. Orville’s earliest writing reflects his belief not only in the abolition of slavery, but in racial equality.
In 1847, at the age of sixteen, Orville and his older brother Edmund attended Oberlin College. Oberlin was an Abolitionist school, and the only college of the time to admit both free African Americans and whites. It is from Oberlin that one of the few documents written by Orville survives, a letter to his family written on Sunday, December 11, 1847. The sixteen year old Orville comes across as an intelligent young man with keen insight and well-developed sarcasm. He is homesick, complaining of “the dullness and monotony” of the college town. Although an Abolitionist college, Orville thinks that “Anti Slavery — is in a rather latent state” at the school. He complains bitterly of the religious mandates of the college. The Howes were unorthodox in their beliefs: Eber was a spiritualist, and Sophia, was, for a time, Mormon. Orville writes, in the same letter, “We had three sermons last Sunday, and those that heard anything relating to abolition, had better ears than I.” He concludes his letter by grousing that Oberlin “is a perfect “Priest- Factory.”
At Oberlin, Orville and his brother Edmund boarded with a Grahamite professor. Dr. Sylvester Graham was a Presbyterian minister who advocated frequent bathing and a vegetarian diet. His follower, Prof. Jennings, with whom the brothers lodged, served no meat, cheese, or butter to the students. While the sickly Edmund is uncomplaining, Orville writes that “brown bread and journey cake and no butter work admirably — ” (12/11/1847). He alternates sarcasm with complaints about the school, declaring it “a miserable place to learn refinement.” Orville calls Oberlin “the most uncongenial community I was ever or ever wish to be in.” Race relations are not what they should be, both Orville and Edmund observe. Orville prefers the company of the African American students. The white students do not care “for the rest of the world,” in contrast with the African Americans, who are “always friendly, and sociable.”
Orville’s sarcasm and indignity at America’s racism did not diminish in the following years. Once, as an adult, he was shopping at a store in Ohio, when two men were discussing whether or not blacks had souls. They asked Orville’s opinion. “Well,” Orville quipped, “if a man is half white and half black, does that mean he has half a soul?” This wasn’t the answer the men expected. According to some family sources, it was Orville’s outspokenness on the slavery question, as well as the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, that contributed to his decision to leave Ohio. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 stiffened penalties for those who helped slaves escape.
Orville’s interests were not so much in the liberal arts taught at Oberlin, but in science, surveying, and agriculture. At some point, probably 1849, Orville left Oberlin and attended Hobart College. Hobart College, then called Geneva College, offered practical scientific degrees in agriculture and math. This meant that Orville didn’t have to study the classics that his brother Edmund enjoyed. Orville matriculated from Hobart (Geneva) College.
In 1848, tragedy struck the Howe family. Edmund, Orville’s beloved older brother, contracted malaria. This was called “bilious” or “autumn fever,” and swept through Ohio towns in the mid- nineteenth century. In January 1849, Edmund passed away. Edmund’s last letters to Orville survive, which are touching and beautiful, but Orville’s letters to Edmund do not.
Orville was a student of Phonography, an early form of shorthand based on pronunciation and sound. Phonography was developed by Isaac Pittman, a Swedenborgian. Orville did leave a diary from the early 1850’s, but it is virtually indecipherable today. Edmund left a number of essays and letters that reveal a sensitive and insightful soul; although quite young when he died, he had a career in writing as promising as that of his father, Eber. Orville’s interests were math and agriculture, and his life took a different direction from his father and deceased brother. Although Orville’s 1847 letter home is interesting, his later writing is less so. Only two handwritten documents of his survive, outside the 1847 and the indecipherable diary.
At some point in the early 1850’s, Orville became a teacher, first in Ohio at Mentor, and then Jefferson. Orville moved to Illinois and Michigan; in 1854 he married Mary Anne Fenton of Battle Creek, Michigan. Miss Fenton was the daughter of Michigan’s lieutenant governor. In 1855, Orville delivered a speech to the students of Bedford Harmonial Institute in Massachusetts. Not written in Phonographic shorthand, it is unremarkable. One of the interesting things about the speech is the repeated use of apples and “autumn fruit” as metaphor. Orville would achieve his success growing an apple orchard in Nebraska. It’s possible that Orville was already interested in agriculture at this time.
Orville and Mary Anne had no children. The couple relocated to Wisconsin in the mid 1850’s. In 1858, Mary contracted “consumption,” possibly tuberculosis or some other respiratory illness. Orville took a teaching job in Sherman, Texas, hoping the dry air would help Mary Anne. But in 1860, Mary Anne Fenton Howe passed away. Orville lovingly saved her scrapbook, which consists mainly of newspaper clippings on women’s rights. On an inside page, Orville wrote simply that his life ended with Mary Anne’s death.
By 1860, war between the states seemed inevitable, and the grief-stricken Orville fled hurriedly on horseback from Texas through Indian Country, now Oklahoma. He reached the Missouri River, and returned to Ohio by boat. Firmly pro-Union, Orville chose to pay a $300 tax to the war effort rather than fight. In December of 1861, he located his childhood sweetheart, Mary Eunice Pepoon, who was living with her family in Warren, Illinois. The Pepoons were originally from Painesville, Ohio, where they used their farm as a station on the Underground Railroad. Because of the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, many Abolitionists had to cease assisting runaway slaves or face substantial prison terms. The Pepoons left Ohio at that time, and Mary Eunice taught school in Illionois, where Orville found her. According to a family story, she was teaching class just before Christmas, when word reached her that Orville Howe was looking for her. She was almost too excited to continue teaching, and the couple married immediately, during the Christmas holiday.
In 1862, the couple’s first child, Edmund, named for Orville’s brother, was born. Seven years later, a daughter, Myrta Eunice, was born. In 1866, when the Civil War was over, Orville and his growing family returned to Painesville. Orville took a hiatus from teaching, and started a small orchard. He began experimenting with apple trees, and had some success. By the late 1860’s, Mary Pepoon Howe’s brother, Theodore Pepoon, moved to southeast Nebraska. Several like-minded families decided to form a progressive, Utopian-type farming community they called Bunker Hill. Orville purchased land near the farm of Theodore Pepoon in 1869. It was difficult to travel to Nebraska until the completion of the railroad there in 1871. The Howes arrived on train.
Orville and Mary had purchased the homestead of Alexander Allen in Nebraska, which consisted of 160 acres. The land was mostly prairie, with a branch of the Nemaha River running through it. The farm house was a dugout near this branch, with sod walls. Wood for construction was in short supply on the prairie, and had to be shipped up the Missouri River before the railroad came through. In 1871, the Howes began construction of a large wooden house to replace the sod structure. Orville was the school principal in nearby Falls City, and taught in the school for several years. By 1872, the Howe’s home was finished, except for the upstairs, which at that time had no inside walls. The large second story served as meeting house and school for the Bunker Hill neighborhood. This loft was the location for progressive causes in the area, especially the Grange and Independent Order of the Good Templars, a temperance society.
In 1879, Orville was elected superintendent of schools in Pawnee County, and was re-elected to that office for six years. In addition, Orville worked as the county surveyor, and in 1886 was elected to that office. He laid out most of the roads in the sparsely inhabited county, and was re-elected to that position until he chose to retire in the early 1900’s.
By the late nineteenth century, Mary Pepoon Howe’s brother, Theodore, left the area, and ceded his farm land to Mary in payment for debts. This increased the farmland tilled by the Howes to 200 acres, until the 1899 railroad purchased eleven acres for its right of way. Farming of corn, wheat, and watermelon was not the primary goal of the Howe’s farm: it was primarily an orchard, and was known as Orchard Grove Farm. By 1888, Orville had planted 2500 apple trees. At its most productive, the orchard produced 1,300 bushels of apples.
By 1900, Orville was well-respected among orchard growers, and gave a speech to an orchard growing society in southeast Nebraska. This speech is handwritten, and is the last document of Orville’s that has survived. Like the speech of 1855, it is unremarkable. Hopefully it was delivered enthusiastically; the content is dry. Nonetheless it reveals the fact that Orville was considered an expert in orcharding. The Howe orchard was diverse: in addition to apple trees, Orville experimented with apricots and cherries.
Then, as now, farming was a difficult profession. In the 1870’s, there were periodic droughts and grasshopper invasions that destroyed crops. There was the constant danger of prairie fire. The Howes raised livestock in addition to corn and wheat. They had cattle, pigs, and chickens. While there were Native Americans on nearby reservations, most of the peaceful Indians of southeast Nebraska were forced to live in Indian Country, Oklahoma, by 1880. Accounts of Indian raids made sensational reading in local newspapers, but these were probably not factual. Some settlers were apparently terrified of Indians, but pioneers in southeast Nebraska were not in any danger. The truth was the reverse: Native Americans had been virtually wiped out by European disease. The slaughter of the buffalo and incursion into farmland belonging to Indians destroyed the indigenous way of life.
By about 1910, prices for wheat went up, and the Howe farm, which was now run by Orville’s son, Edmund, concentrated on that crop. Orchard Grove Farm ceased to be an orchard, and became a farm.
Orville’s marriage to Mary Pepoon seemed to be a happy one for both parties. Mary was a poet, and one of the farm buildings held a printing press. Mary Pepoon Howe’s work was published for a local audience, and she was asked to read at various community events. She had the ability to create poems for any occasion. Mary’s poems, like Orville’s speeches, were specific to occasions. Nonetheless, her early poems, written when she was quite young, are good. Mary wrote several poems about fugitive slaves, and two poems expressing regret for the fate of Native Americans. Many poems were written for her teachers and friends, and one depicts a seance. Both she and her husband Orville were spiritualists.
In spite of the fact that the Howes had a press, Orville apparently wrote little after the letters from Oberlin. He was a man of science, and unlike his father and brother, was not a writer. Perhaps he was simply too busy maintaining the orchard, farming, teaching, and surveying to write. The farm house was eventually finished, with four large bedrooms upstairs, and two bedrooms on the ground floor. The kitchen house was built behind the farm house, and had no connecting doors to the main house. Fire was always a danger. In later years, the kitchen house was joined to the main house. It was a large structure, with both a cellar and attic in addition to the two stories. It was built entirely of wood: although some houses in the nearby town of Table Rock are constructed of brick, the brick kiln wasn’t started till 1900, twenty years after the Howe’s house was built.
In some ways, Orville seems to be the “enfant terrible” of Eber and Sophia Hull. He left his parents and comfortable home in Ohio, and during the 1850’s and 60’s, moving frequently. His father, Eber, outlived his mother Sophia, and lived with his daughter, Minerva Howe Rogers in Concord, Ohio. Minerva married the co-owner of the Howe’s woolen factory, Franklin Rogers. Orville seems left out, and it is tempting to psychoanalyze. Was Orville scarred by the death of his brother Edmund? He certainly knew tragedy: his beloved first wife, Mary Anne Fenton Howe died young and childless. Eber and Edmund Howe were both men of letters and talented writers. Orville was not. His skills were in math and science. Maybe Orville found communicating more difficult than his father and brother.
Whatever the dynamics of his family in Ohio, Orville was not estranged from them. His father even came to visit the orchard in Nebraska when Eber was in his seventies. It wasn’t an easy trip. Orville was perhaps a lost soul in his twenties and thirties, and didn’t seem to settle down until he farmed the rich, black earth of southeast Nebraska. He was forty when he moved to Bunker Hill. As a young man, Orville didn’t stay at any school for more than two years at a time. Then, as now, teachers are not wealthy. But Orville was able to pay the $300 fee to avoid military service during the Civil War. Orville was able to buy the previously homesteaded farm in southeast Nebraska, and construct one of the finest houses in the county. It is doubtful he got the money for either of these enterprises from teaching, especially since he took a sabbatical in 1866 to experiment with fruit trees. The money no doubt came from his wealthy father in Ohio.
Because Orville left so little writing, it’s hard to have a sense of his thoughts and emotions. From newspaper accounts of the activities on Orchard Grove Farm, a picture of a busy life emerges. Before the large second floor on the house was finished, it served as a meeting place for Bunker Hill School, the Grange, and the Independent Order of the Good Templars, a temperance society. The “Argus,” published in nearby Table Rock, gives accounts of lavish parties at the house, with suppers served for thirty or more. The Howes were politically engaged, and Orville held elected office. His son Edmund used the printing press to publish a newspaper for the Populist Party, and later became an officer in the Socialist Party of Nebraska. According to his obituary, Orville was a member of the Free Soil Party when that party was formed in the 1850’s. The Free Soil Party was committed to the abolition of slavery. Later, Orville appears to have joined the Republicans.
In 1903, Orville’s second wife passed away at the age of seventy-two. Mary Pepoon Howe had been ill for many years. Like his first wife, Mary Anne Fenton Howe, Mary Pepoon Howe suffered from a respiratory illness, possibly tuberculosis. In 1904, Orville’s daughter Myrta died at the age of thirty five. She was a follower of Mary Baker Eddy, and would not allow her father and brother to call a doctor when she was ill. Medical practice was limited at that time, and even a qualified physician might have been unable to help her. Like his father Eber, Orville was interested in spiritualism, and believed in communication with the dead. Myrta was much sought after as a medium: in addition to farming and teaching piano, Myrta used a “Ouija” board to speak with the ancestors of those who asked for this service.
In 1917, at the age of eighty-six, Orville passed away. He was survived by his son Edmund, his daughter-in-law Mary Viggers Howe, and three grandsons, the middle one being named for him. Orville began life in Ohio, the son of a couple who were committed to Abolition, women’s rights, and other progressive causes. After becoming a teacher, Orville moved around frequently, and married his first wife, Mary Fenton Howe, who died after six years of marriage. At age 31, he married an old friend, Mary Pepoon. At 40, Orville found a direction for his life in southeast Nebraska. He was a school principal, superintendant, and surveyor. He was elected to public office, and was re-elected as often as he wished to be. He surveyed most of the roads in Pawnee County, and planted an orchard and other crops. His farm is still in the Howe family today. The house was torn down in 1971. This study has focused on Orville Howe, but both of his wives, Mary Anne Fenton and Mary Eunice Pepoon, deserve study as well. Both were remarkable women who came from families with a rich historical heritage.
I would like to express my gratitude to Helen Howe Saylor and David Viggers Howe, Ph.D., for access to original sources and copies of documents. As a child, I frequently visited the house built by Orville Howe, my great-great grandfather.
“Fugitive Slave Act,” http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h137.html, retrieved 5/22/2010.
Eber Dudley Howe, “Autobiography and Recollections of a Pioneer Printer: Together with Sketches of the War of 1812 on the Niagara Frontier.” Concord, Ohio, 1878. Reprint.
Mary Pepoon Howe, “Early Poems.” Table Rock, Nebraska: E.D. Howe, 1902.
“Orville Duane Howe, 1831-1917,” Nebraska Historical Society Collection Record.
Orville Duane Howe, “Address delivered before the students of Bedford Harmonial Institute, September 22, 1855,” in hand-written diary from the 1850’s. Publication forthcoming.
Orville Duane Howe, “Letter to Howe Family,” December 11, 1847. Publication forthcoming.
Orville Duane Howe, “Speech to Orchard Society in southeast Nebraska,” ca. 1900. Publication forthcoming.
“Portrait and Biographical Album of Johnson and Pawnee Counties, Nebraska,” Chicago: Chapman Brothers, 1889, pages 499-500.
“Prohibition of Alcohol in Nebraska,” http://www.nebraskastudies.org/0700/stories_0120.html, retrieved 7/25/2010.
“The Battle for Votes for Women in Nebraska,” http://www.nebraskastudies.org/0700/stories_0110.html, retrieved 7/25/2010.
“The Grange Movement,” http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h854.html, retrieved 8/19/2010.
“The Progressive Movement,” http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h1061.html, retrieved 7/25/2010.
Thomas Dudley Howe, Letters written to family members concerning life of Orville Duane Howe, 1967, unpublished.